Review by Joseph Fayed
European cinema tends to be very upfront with their openness towards erotica. The same can be applied to Europe in general, and it's why the erotic thriller genre is so much more common overseas. The few American attempts worth acknowledging don't seem to leverage the balance between lust and control very well. The new film Sanctuary tries to bridge that gap with a focus on more than just promiscuity.
The film follows Hal, a hotel heir who wants to end his longstanding relationship with his dominatrix, Rebecca. Hal breaks the news during one of their sessions. The two struggle to end things their own way for the first time since they met. Ulterior motives to their relationship are unearthed as the two realize neither of them will leave the other without being unscathed.
Many viewers may be surprised to discover that the film has very few sex scenes, and none of them are very explicit. That may hinder one's arousal, but the leads still have more to do than just each other. As the only two characters, Hal and Rebecca have our full attention. Their dominance they each think they have gained over each other is established early on. It just isn't seen through an opening montage of steamy sex scenes. But that doesn't mean there is a delay in finding out what arouses Hal or Rebecca and how it's acted upon.
Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley make their characters and their egos come to life. All around their performances is depicted what clients and sex workers usually experience: dread. That doesn't make the film anti-sex work, but it does mean that the tension that develops between the two of them quickly spirals out of control inside the penthouse suite. Ending a longstanding business relationship is never straightforward, even if it involves foreplay. Both Hal and Rebecca are uptight people despite their different class upbringings. Their characterization makes that very apparent, and it doesn't stem from any sexual desires.
Sanctuary shows us how two adults may react when sex no longer becomes gratifying. The best part about the film is that it presents sex for what it ultimately is: a two-way street. We learn what the two gave up to reach this point, without diving too far into either of their pasts at the expense of the other protagonist. It becomes more of a thriller with less erotic elements, and manages to reach a satisfying conclusion for the back and forth nature of this cat and mouse game. What's sexier than that? Not Margaret Qualley's blonde wig, that's for sure.
Sanctuary is now playing in theaters.